Multi-screen audiovisual installation, 2019 – ongoing
Video projection, music, photography
177 km east of Brussels, near Cologne, lays the Hambach Forest. Estimated to be 12,000 years old and a regional beacon of biodiversity, only 10% of this natural treasure remains today. The rest has been cleared, to make room for the Hambach surface mine—the largest of its kind in Europe. Operated by the multinational energy giant RWE and covering an area of 50 square kilometers, the Hambach surface mine exploits a massive lignite deposit, the dirtiest coal variant. Everyday, it emits around 270,000 tons of CO₂, making it the largest single source of greenhouse gases in Europe. As it stands, extraction is set to continue for another 18 years, erasing the Hambach Forest entirely and several villages in the process.
Joanie Lemercier experienced a shock when facing the scale of destruction, going to the mine in 2019. What he found was otherworldly: resembling a giant impact crater, the mine’s pit stretched as far as the eye can see. In it, tearing through ancient sediment layers, were the largest machines ever built. Just above the horizon plumes of fine ash rising from the smokestacks of four power plants that burn the extracted coal offsite, 100 million tons per year.
Hambach is a symbol for the front lines in the global climate crisis, and for citizens fighting back. Over the last couple of years, the site has become a hotspot for environmental activism, which saw protestors temporarily shut down mining operations by mass trespassing, and protect the forest through occupation. Lemercier has joined them on numerous occasions, documenting their struggle against law enforcement and the destruction they fight against.
Part of the piece is extremely contemplative, almost peaceful, like a suspended moment, the beauty of this Technological Sublime where one can easily imagine the continuity of what he is witnessing. Environmental wipeout at a large scale happens with a different time frame: it takes 40 years for CO2 emissions to impact the atmosphere of our planet, making climate change so difficult to comprehend on an individual level. This is what is called “Slow Violence” by Rob Nixon, Princeton University teacher.
Confronting both “sides” of the story on the human scale: we are witnessing the actors of coal mining versus eco-activists and individuals protecting the environment. These insect-like individuals become a fluid or organic entity inside the immensity of the mine seen from a human scope as a way to engage the viewer and give some aspiration that it is possible to take action and become part of the story.
With The Hambach Forest and the Technological Sublime (2019-2021), Lemercier forces one of Europe’s worst environmental atrocities into the public eye, confronting viewers with scenes of unspeakable climate injustice, shielded by corporate and political powers working hand in hand. But the work also highlights personal agency, the importance of solidarity, and that the future is ours to make. Meanwhile, the mine remains a climate front line—for Lemercier, the region, and the world.
This project marks a pivotal point in Lemercier’s practice. Since his first Hambach visit, Lemercier has joined countless other protests and regularly assists environmental groups with creative means of intervention. Drawing on years of computational explorations, Lemercier has begun to leverage his artistic practice to drive conversations around sustainability and inspire climate action.
Creation: Joanie Lemercier
Video: Joanie Lemercier
Music: Used with permission from Multiverse Media Publishing and Subtext Recordings, music by Roly Porter, Ellen Arkbro, Cevdet Erek
Music mix: James Ginzburg
Production: Juliette Bibasse
Additional Images: Arne Müseler
Texts: Juliette Bibasse
Activism images filmed during Ende Gelände actions in June 2019 and September 2020